Ideas and Strategies for TAing Inclusively and Equitably Online

This blog post is based on a talk that I gave at the Inequity in STEM seminar at UT Austin.  The key ideas come from this Center for Organizational Responsibility and Advancement webinar, led by Dr. Frank Harris III and Dr. J. Luke Wood at SDSU.  However, I have supplemented their ideas to show what we, as grad student TAs, can do to be inclusive and equitable.


As the end of the summer break nears and the fall semester approaches, we, as grad student teachers and TAs, need to prepare for the coming online or hybrid semester.   If you TAed during the spring semester, take the time to reflect on your own experience with the transition to online classes. In particular, think about whether the tools and techniques that you used were effective.

However, for both new and returning TAs, another important thing to think about is whether your online teaching practices are inclusive and equitable. Teaching online is a completely different experience from teaching in person, and it’s not enough to just use your in-person teaching practices on Zoom. On the other hand, it’s also important to not get excited and carried away with new technology (aka Zoom breakout rooms) – you need to carefully consider whether your students have access to the resources and hardware/software to use these technologies.

If you are a course instructor with control over your syllabus, I recommend using the framework of Universal Design for Learning in re-designing your course for online instruction. However, if you are a TA without the power to make these changes, I recommend thinking about the four following tenets in your online teaching practices:

  • Accessibility
  • Building Community
  • Intervention
  • Empathy & Race-consciousness

I will discuss each of these tenets below, and provide a non-exhaustive list of suggestions that go with these tenets.  Please feel free to comment and share any other suggestions you might have!

Disclaimer: Most of this blog post is written in race-neutral language.  This is because most of these suggestions are about inclusivity and equity, and will improve the learning experience for everyone, regardless of race, gender, socio-economic background, etc.  However, we should not ignore the fact that race and cultural identity can be a barrier to accessing resources and opportunities in education.  Therefore, you should read these suggestions with a focus on how they can help counteract and overcome systemic racial inequity.


Accessibility:

The first and most important tenet of online teaching is accessibility – in order for your students to learn, they must have access to the course materials.

However, this does not just mean recording your Zoom lectures!  Not all students have access to fast, reliable internet.  Therefore, you should offer accessible, low-data and mobile-friendly materials (such as accessible pdfs).

Similarly, not all students will have access to webcams, microphones, or even a quiet workspace.  Furthermore, you should consider how to best use your synchronous time.  Plenty of good videos teaching calculus exist already, so you should consider using active learning techniques, instead.

  1. Anonymously survey your students about their resources and needs.  In particular, things you should ask include:
    • What technology/software do they have access to?
    • Do they have reliable internet access?
    • Do they have a quiet/safe workspace?
    • Are there accommodations they might need?
    • What are the student’s course goals?
  2. Use both synchronous and asynchronous materials and activities.
    • Make use of discussion forums like Canvas/Piazza.
    • Use active learning techniques.
    • Vary the activities you use, and split your synchronous time into smaller (5-15) minute segments.
  3. Use transcription services.
    • For example, Google Slides offers a free(!!) live captioning feature. Powerpoint also has this feature.
    • Youtube and Zoom also have transcription features for videos.
    • Find out if your university offers transcription services – UT Austin does!

Building Community:

We lose a lot of things in the virtual learning format that are normally taken for granted – for example, we lose having a shared, physical space.  It’s a lot harder to see non-verbal cues to measure student engagement/interest.  Similarly, it’s a lot easier to get distracted online.

Therefore, it’s worth examining our models for learning.  This post in particular is based on the Community of Inquiry” model for (online) learning.  This model posits that the educational experience not only requires a teaching presence and a cognitive presence (aka teacher and student), but also a social presence (aka discussion with peers). Therefore, it is important to build community in your online teaching.

  1. Build student communities that exist beyond class hours:
    • Zoom breakout rooms are not enough!
    • Encourage students to collaborate and create class notes using Google docs.
    • Use discussion forum platforms such as Canvas or Piazza.
  2. Encourage students to form study groups/connect via social media.
    • For example, Groupme is extremely popular at UT Austin.
    • Suggest the use of social contracts for accountability.
  3. Encourage participation in office hours and/or other tutoring services.
    • In particular, encourage students to attend in groups!

Intervention:

Along with building community, another important facet of online teaching is to reach out to students before they are at risk of dropping out or failing.  It is especially easy to stop engaging and/or attending class in the online format.  Furthermore, students from under-represented groups may struggle with seeking help, so it’s especially important to take the initiative to reach out.  Showing that you notice and care can make a world of difference.

  1. Track participation/engagement weekly through low or no-stakes check-ins:
    • Possible tools include polls, Canvas posts, etc.
    • You could ask students to share weekly highs/lows, share their pets, or other ice-breaker games.
    • Make sure you are doing this with accessibility in mind!
  2. Continue to survey students about their needs.
    • Re-evaluate your discussion section goals biweekly or monthly.

Empathy and Race-consciousness:

Finally, the last tenet to keep in mind is empathy and race-consciousness.  It’s important to humanize yourself, and connect with your students, especially in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic.

  1. Acknowledge the difficulties of the pandemic.
    • Know that it affects different people and groups in different ways.
    • Promote self-care resources.
  2. Be accommodating/flexible (within reason).
  3. Be available:
    • Have regular office hours.
    • Respond to emails/messages promptly.

You should also be aware of your own actions – don’t downplay the difficulties that they may be facing, but instead be empathetic and accommodating.

Furthermore, you should be conscious about the examples and people that you choose to talk about!  For example, calculus may have been invented by Newton and Leibniz, but ideas in calculus existed before them, and calculus has been refined and developed by people afterwards.  Furthermore, you can also include people that applied calculus to solve real-world problems.

  1. Be aware of your own actions:
    • Validate, affirm, and empower your students.
    • Avoid microaggressions.  Your behavior can have an adverse impact on others, even in the absence of malicious intent.
  2. Be race-conscious in the examples you use, and the mathematicians you mention. Some suggestions include:
    • Kerala School of Mathematics
    • Maria Agnesi
    • Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson
    • Annie Easley

See below for resources that can help you find other examples of mathematicians to highlight in class.


Further Resources:

In my talk, I highlighted and mentioned several resources available at UT Austin – in particular the Faculty Innovation Center.  I highly recommend learning about the resources and support your institution offers, and reaching out to ask questions.

Resources for inclusive and equitable online teaching practices:

Resources for examples of mathematicians to bring up in your classes:

 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed on this blog are the views of the writer(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the American Mathematical Society.

Comments Guidelines: The AMS encourages your comments, and hopes you will join the discussions. We re- view comments before they are posted, and those that are offensive, abusive, off-topic or promoting a com- mercial product, person or website will not be posted. Expressing disagreement is fine, but mutual respect is required.

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